What we have been installing in buildings and data centers for years that could be a lethal element for a terrorist attack? If you are some “certified infrastructure designer” or hold some cabling design certificate from CISCO or some other network infrastructure vendor, and you don’t know the answer, this is a must-read article for you.

As I have said in the past, when it comes to asymmetrical warfare and terrorism, trying to do damage with only a small team of people and limited resources becomes a task focused more on combining creativity and cunning than delivering brute force in superior numbers and material.

The primary focus to accomplish the mission is utilizing available materials and exploiting the ease of using them. We have seen attempts with car bombs worldwide (including the first New York trade center bombing), bombs in knapsacks (Boston), and other individual weapons: knives, machetes and guns; so there are many offensive moves that we must be prepared for and defense against.

Lately, terrorists have been using trucks and other vehicles to kill people on the street in large cities. It has become a common strategy and one that is hard to defend against.

Instead of focusing just on the defense of this already-known tactic, we must also understand and prepare for the next wave of attacks as they may revert back to a form of bombing or setting fires using materials at hand.

We must re-think building materials

From industry organizations like Building Industry Consulting Services International (BICSI) to the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), some materials being used in buildings have to be re-evaluated. Add to that group the International Facilities Managers Association (IFMA).

If best practices of electrical contractors for cabling infrastructure and its distribution still specify the use of Teflon-coated Cat 5, 6 and 7 cabling for commercial buildings, they need to re-evaluate their best practices. If they don’t, they are adding a potential killer to every floor, office and data center cabling infrastructure they install.

What about other “building experts” on the real estate side who wave LEEDS certification and claim to know so much about energy-savings in buildings? Are they even aware cabling clad with Teflon and its generic equivalents (PTFE, PFOA, PFOS) used for power and communications cabling infrastructure can transform into a poisonous nerve gas in a fire?

Funny how many also wave CISCO certificates, vendor solution certifications, PMPs, and other documents who are unaware of this real and deadly problem.

From an article I wrote in 2012:

This is according to an industry consultant:

“In the U.S., there is approximately 8.5 million miles of abandoned cable in the workplace. Most of that cable contains Teflon FEP or Neoflon FEP (approximately 11 pounds per thousand feet of plenum cable). This material is potentially highly toxic and extremely corrosive. About 500 million pounds of FEP equals a potential super weapon or threat to the U.S. workplace.”

Teflon, a long-used material in frying pans and cable cladding, has been pointed out to me to be harmful in a different way in office fires. While it may be flame retardant, the tradeoff is that it can emit a toxic gas when it’s heated.

Teflon can be recognized as a cladding or insulator on any cabling if the cabling states it is composed of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) polymer.

Although the coated cables are flame-retardant, when heated, the Teflon starts to decompose, and part of it evaporates into different poisonous gasses including a paralyzing nerve gas. This starts to happen at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, or C8) is a carcinogen, and once it is in your body it stays there. It does not decompose. It has been documented through studies that traces of PFOA are in at least 99 percent of the population’s bloodstream. People who work in chemical plants have much higher levels than the average person.

Poison gas not the only threat

Do you know how corrosive the gas is when you have a fire in a data center and something that is Teflon-based flames up? The corrosive gas that develops from the burning cable will bring down the whole data center. The gas will corrode all the hard-drives very quickly.

If people who are building and maintaining data centers were aware of this issue with cabling, would they still specify the same cables? Why not Halar or other some other coatings? These compounds are superior in their fire resistance.

This is not a small problem. When it comes to office buildings, you can measure the amount of Teflon and all its generic names by hundreds of pounds per building. It’s not just in the cabling.

Materials making up office furniture, flooring, stain-resistant carpeting, and other building components utilize poly-fluorinated compounds (PFCs, which are used for these protective or stain-resistant coatings).

Teflon coatings in pots and pans is being phased out for health reasons. There is more Teflon behind the walls of an office building than there is in several stores selling pots and pans. We should be looking at phasing out any Teflon-based cabling in buildings as well, if we are serious about creating a better and healthier work environment. And, one that does not lend itself as a good starting point for a potential terrorist attack.

There is more proof that, when PTFE is heated, it emits the equivalent of a nerve gas:

Overheating of PTFE generates fumes of highly toxic PFIB (Perfluoroisobutylene) and poses a serious health hazard to the human respiratory tract. PFIB is approximately ten times as toxic as phosgene [2]. Inhalation of this gas can cause pulmonary edema, which can lead to death. PFIB is included in Schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), as a result of the prompting by one delegation to the Conference on Disarmament [3]. ...

You can read all of this article here.

PFIB toxicity info can be found here.

To all the network design experts out there who ignore this issue, so much for your approach to attain “best practices.” You can burn your worthless certificates up. Just don’t burn them too close to the Teflon-coated cabling you authorized and had installed as a “best practice” design for your organization’s cloud-computing solution.